Colorado is one of the biggest sheep and lamb producers in the nation. But is it doing enough to prevent the abuse of its immigrant workers?
About a week after he arrived in the United States, Conovilca-Matamoros says his employer took his passport, visa, and I-94 card, which confirmed his legal nonimmigrant status—all the proof that he was here lawfully. And he quickly discovered that his hunger would persist because, working primarily in remote areas, he had no way to buy food for himself. In his home country, Conovilca-Matamoros was accustomed to having the basic nutritional necessities, “but here I didn’t even have that,” he says.
Sheepherders are instructed to contact the Western Range Association (WRA) if they have problems, and they’re allowed to request a transfer to another ranch if they’re unhappy. According to a lawsuit he later filed against his employer, Conovilca-Matamoros called the WRA, which facilitates the visa process for member ranches, to complain that he wasn’t getting enough food. His case file shows that soon after
he placed that call, his employer yelled at him for calling the WRA first instead of coming directly to him. The rancher moved Conovilca-Matamoros away from other workers and eventually into the mountains to work alone.
Like many sheepherders, Conovilca-Matamoros lived in a campito, which is similar to a horse trailer. These measure about five by 10 feet and often have no electricity or running water. (Some campitos reportedly are equipped with solar panels that can supply power for charging small electronics.) With no insulation or refrigeration, they can be hot and stuffy in the summer sun, and in the winter they’re so frigid the herders’ drinking water freezes. According to the legal case file, Conovilca-Matamoros’ campito had holes in the ceiling and walls that let howling winds buffet through it and rainwater drip onto his bedding.
By law, sheepherder camps get inspections every three years, and the CDLE oversees the process. In the interim, employers are supposed to self-certify a camp’s conditions. When official inspections are conducted, it’s rarely without an employer’s previous knowledge, and the inspectors don’t usually visit the more distant sites. “We don’t see them when they’re in remote areas because mainly we just don’t know where those camps are,” Ruiz says. “More than likely, when we see them they’re in passable condition because they know the inspection’s going to be done. It’s up to the employer to fix things as they become inoperable.”
Whether a campito passes inspection is only part of the picture. “Some conditions cannot be remedied by the U.S. Department of Labor because they are not violations of the federal program,” says Jennifer Lee, a CLS attorney. Ruiz agrees that the problem lies with the laws as they’re currently written. “The employers can do more to make these employees comfortable,” she says, by using solar-powered or motor home–style trailers.
Last summer in Routt National Forest, one sheepherder told me that it’s considered a privilege to stay on a ranch. Sheepherders who aren’t already friends with the other workers, or who somehow run afoul of their employers, may get banished to the mountains to herd alone. Working outdoors in one of the most beautiful environments on the planet may seem idyllic, but advocates say the isolation takes a toll. While these men may be used to the hard work and basic lifestyle of a sheepherder, they’re unaccustomed to how far they’ll be from any social interaction. (In Central and South America, sheep operations tend to be nearer to each other or to villages.) “At home they herd sheep in a different manner, there’s no doubt,” the rancher Etchart says. “But these areas are larger and not as populated as maybe they are at home.”
Allen, a sheepherder I met in Routt who declined to give his last name, says he works an average of 112 hours per week. He’s allowed two weeks off per year, but in his two years in Colorado, he says he hasn’t taken a break because he needs the extra income. I interviewed Allen with Tom Acker, a Spanish professor at Colorado Mesa University, and Ignacio Alvarado, a former sheepherder. When Allen hesitated on an answer, Alvarado told him, “I know what this life is like. I know what it’s like to be alone. I know what it’s like to be wandering around in the rain.”